2016-01-15 / Front Page

‘My whole life has been South Portland’

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Russ Lunt Russ Lunt SOUTH PORTLAND – If you’ve been to any meeting of the city council or planning board over the past three years, or if you’ve watched one broadcast on community television, you know his face. And, if you’ve driven any road in South Portland, you’ve experienced his handiwork.

He is Russ Lunt and the Brigham Street resident has been honored for dedication to his native city as this year’s winner of the Sentry’s annual Great Person Award.

“He has his finger on the pulse of South Portland,” said Joel Cohen, who nominated Lunt for the honor. It was a popular choice.

“I hope he wins,” said Jeff Selser during a city council meeting soon after the first nomination list was published. “I just love his pure positivity and I think that’s something we need more of.”

Lunt, 58, is a 34-year veteran of South Portland’s public works department. After retiring, he got involved in the drive to build a new public works complex to replace the antiquated facility he worked in for many years. After campaigning successfully for that cause, Lunt found he enjoyed participating in public issues and soon made a hobby of attending all council meetings, because, as he puts it, “I just like to keep up on things.”

He hasn’t missed a single meeting since — something no actual sitting member of the council can say – and Lunt is sometimes referred to as “the eighth councilor.”

“It’s great to have Russ participate and give his perspective,” said Mayor Tom Blake. “It’s a perspective that’s different from a lot of people, because of his experience. It’s valuable and I do listen to every word he says.”

That means a lot to Russ, but even more meaningful is the nod from Sentry readers with the Great Person vote.

“That award means so much to me,” he said. “To have people want to vote for me is so humbling. Oh, that is so nice. I am, truly, very, very appreciative. I really am, because I just love South Portland. I love everything about it. I mean, really, my whole life has been South Portland.”

Lunt grew up in the Meeting House Hill neighborhood, one of four children. His father worked at the U.S. Post Office and his mother at Maine National Bank. The area at the time was “just a mountain of kids,” who play at “The Piggery,” located at the dead-end of Everett Avenue and Lowell Street, or swim Willard Beach.

“I practically grew up on Willard Beach, and, man, that was a lot different than it is now, too,” he recalls. “When I was a little fella, they didn’t have the sewer separated from the stormwater, or any of these pumping stations, and certainly not the treatment plant. There are two huge brown pipes that are still there at Willard today and that’s where raw sewage used to dump in. When I’d swim I used to get little bits of toilet paper caught between my toes. That water was totally contaminated. It’s amazing I never got hepatitis. It used to be pretty godawful gross.

“But, back then, I didn’t know any better. Nobody did,” Lunt said, again turning on his trademark positivity. “Really, I can’t believe how far South Portland has come. For all the complaining some people do, it really has come a long way. It’s just the most beautiful, amazing city in the state, I believe.”

After graduating from South Portland High School in 1976, Lunt tried his hand at being a mechanic, but found life under a hood wasn’t for him.

Instead, his uncle, who worked for public works at the time, got him a job for the city, albeit on the back of a garbage truck.

“Oh, man, we did it in all weather — blistering hot, blistering cold, it didn’t matter,” he said. “Back then, in ’78, ’79, we had some vicious snowstorms, and they never called rubbish off. A plow would go by and bury everything and we’d have to pull trash cans and bags out of snowbanks 6 feet tall. It was tough. But, back then, it was Ge Erskine in charge of public works. He didn’t care, you did your job.”

Eventually, Lunt earned his Class B driver’s license and got an upgrade — driving a snowplow during winter and during roadwork the rest of the year.

“Man, hauling hot top, that was backbreaking work, and we spread it all by hand back then. I bet my hands have worked on every single street in this city,” Lunt said. “It was hard work, but I’m proud to have done it. But plowing snow, that I really loved.”

“I had a four-hour plow route, but it was non-stop,” he said. “You’d do it once and then have to go right back over it. The longest I ever worked was 32 hours straight. You’d get a short break to eat, then right back at it. You couldn’t even sleep, or, if you could, you’d catch a quick nap on the floor of a building at public works we called “the hut.” Honest to God. Ge was fussy. If there was an inch (of snow) you kept at it.”

In all his years, Lunt said he only had one accident behind the wheel of a city plow, one that might seem understandable.

“It was a white car,” he explains, with a laugh, “And, it was right up underneath me. It was following too close. I hit a snowbank and bounced sideways and hit it. It was their fault, following too close, but it still went on my record.”

Lunt later finished out his career in public works in the sign shop. He always had an interest in city governance, he says, but never felt comfortable addressing the council, or even attending meetings while a city employee.

And that’s why he says he has not considered running for a seat on the , council, or taking a job on any board or committee, although he’s often asked.

“I just really like contributing, getting up and having my say, like the American way, and trying to put my little spin on things in a positive way,: he says. “I don’t know but if I was on any kind of committee, I might feel restricted in what I could say.

“Although, really, when it comes to it, all I really want to say is how much I love South Portland,” he said.

In topping the annual reader poll, Lunt beat out six other nominees, which this year included two couples. Also cited by Sentry readers as “Great People,” were Greg Curran, Liz and Bill Darling, Mary Robin Guthrie, Connie Hood, Karen Mc- Cue, and James and Pamela Plunkett.

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